Neal A. Baer, executive producer of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” endorsed the power of stories in a talk yesterday, calling narratives “the currency of our lives” before an audience in Radcliffe Yard’s Longfellow Hall.
“Our brains are wired for storytelling,” Baer said at the event, entitled “Telling Tales: How Stories Can Make a Difference.” “They encapsulate our fears, failures, dreams, and desires. They are the touchstones for our emotions.”
He noted the importance of stories as a means to “cut through the noise” and make sense of the mass of information available in an increasingly technological and interconnected society.
Baer—who holds three graduate degrees from Harvard, including an M.D.—stressed the media’s ability to facilitate social change, primarily focusing on his experience with television as a means to educate viewers.
The executive producer of the popular medical drama “ER” before leaving for Law & Order in 2001, Baer periodically presented video clips from both shows to help him illustrate his points.
At one such juncture, he screened scenes from a 1999 ER episode that told the story of a high school girl’s discovery that she had acquired human papillomavirus (HPV).
From a polling of regular ER viewers, nine percent of those surveyed could correctly define HPV before the show’s airing compared to 28 percent one week after its debut, Baer said. He added that, according to his figures, one in seven viewers contacted a healthcare provider in response to the show’s content.
“People learn in spite of themselves,” Baer said. “We don’t tell people specifically they are going to learn something when they watch our shows, but they end up doing so anyway.”
Forum-attendee and Graduate School of Education graduate student Victoria Chao agreed that stories could have educational potential in an interview after the talk.
“Stories are powerful in way that statistics aren’t,” she said. “If you get down to the individual level of a character in a TV show, it’s easier to become more sympathetic to an issue that you weren’t beforehand.”
Beyond the scope of TV drama, Baer also noted the potential of film documentaries to give a voice to untold stories, describing his most recent project, “Mozambique,” in which he helped to chronicle a 16-year-old’s plight as an AIDS orphan in Africa.
Ted Bogosian, a Kennedy School of Government graduate and local filmmaker that attended the forum, praised Baer’s effectiveness as a communicator.
“Between drama and documentary, there are different methods of storytelling but all are in search of truth,” Bogosian said. “What Baer is excellent at is conveying not only journalistic truth but also emotional truth.”